The Appeal to Higher Authority

I dislike getting in wrangles with people on Facebook. Nobody’s mind ever gets changed as a result, and I seldom learn anything worth knowing. Still, these tiny tempests keep getting stirred up. Quite often on the topic of religion, I’ve noticed. Somebody posts something, I point out the fallacies in it, and before you know it we’re strapping on the gloves and stepping into the ring.

I’ve also noticed that those who adopt a religious position in such discussions are, virtually without exception, impervious to logic and not even faintly interested in logical discourse — unless, of course, they can twist the logic into a form that they can pretend justifies the conclusions they have already reached and are determined to defend.

In order to short-circuit the whole cycle of controversy, I thought I’d write a brief statement, to which I can link whenever it’s needed. It may end up being not entirely brief. We’ll see.

Two thousand years ago, slavery was commonly practiced throughout the world. At that time, women had essentially no rights. Divorce was allowed in Rome, but largely unknown elsewhere. Capital punishment was routinely meted out for trivial offenses. Law enforcement agencies routinely used torture. The concept that citizens had legal rights existed in a few of the larger nations, but the peasants were not considered “citizens” at the time, so most people had no effective rights at all. The knowledge of scientific facts was in an extremely rudimentary state, and the scientific method had yet to be discovered. Most people were illiterate. Infanticide was widely practiced in the most civilized societies (including the Roman Empire) because reliable methods of birth control were unknown. No proper study had ever been made of mental illness, so the origins of certain types of anti-social behavior were not understood. Other than in a few large cities such as Rome, there was no organized form of economic support for those who were destitute.

And yet today, in spite of all of the advancements in both science and the humanities that have been made across the centuries, hundreds of millions of people remain convinced that certain books written 2,000 years ago provide a reliable — indeed, an exemplary — guide to proper moral conduct in human affairs.

That fact is just plain creepy.

Unfortunately, there’s more to the story. I have friends who believe exactly that. So how am I to be honest with them and true to myself without hopelessly alienating them?

Let’s be clear. Anybody who thinks that a book written 2,000 years ago provides a reliable guide to morality is a moron. An imbecile. A mental defective. No other interpretation of the facts is even conceivable.

I do understand that these people are motivated not by logic but by religion. They are impervious to logic. They believe whatever they’ve been told. To question what they’ve been told would frighten them deeply.

So they fail to question what they’ve been told. They fail, again and again, to notice the glaring deficiencies in their own point of view. They defend the indefensible, and see no difficulty in doing so. That is why they qualify as mentally defective.

Many of them are nice people, of course. They mean well — they just don’t have a clue. And they don’t even want a clue. If you offer them a clue, they cringe. In other areas of their lives, they may be quite competent mentally. (One of my friends is a Ph.D. physicist, and also a devout Methodist.) But for some reason, they’re incapable of applying whatever mental acuity they possess to an honest examination of their religion.

Can anything be done about that? Probably not. I’ve tried. I’ve failed. It’s sad, and frustrating, and scary. I don’t like living in a world where I’m surrounded by mental defectives — but that’s the world I live in. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Welcome to the monkey house.”

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